Fabio Capello has learnt not to underestimate any team at the World Cup. Four years ago his England team struggled through a seemingly straight-forward group containing USA, Slovenia and Algeria. In Brazil his new charges Russia will face Algeria again in Group H, along with highly-regarded Belgium and South Korea.
Group H are the 2014 World Cup’s late starters, giving them more time to acclimatise to the conditions and assess the teams in the other groups. The fixtures are also all conveniently located within the South-East region of Brazil, making travel less arduous than in the other pools.
Algeria, the bookies’ outsiders to progress, have a bitter-sweet memory of World Cups. In 1982 they watched Austria allegedly settle for a 1-0 defeat against West Germany in the group stages, a result which took both teams through at the North Africans expense, while in 1986 they were beaten narrowly by Brazil.
Algeria favour the aerial route more than the other teams in Group H, using long balls the most when building attacks. The focal point for crosses and lofted deliveries is likely to be their top scorer over qualifying, Islam Slimani – 30% of the Sporting Lisbon striker’s goals were headers.
Expect Algeria to be most effective down the right flank: Valencia winger Sofiane Feghouli averages most passes per game in dangerous positions (2.6) and most dribbles per game in dangerous situations (2.1), while in the middle Getafe’s Medhi Lacen is the top pass deliverer (28.9) and receiver (34.0) for players with over ten games to their name.
Their opponents might exploit Algeria’s lack of attacking endevour and their tendency to lose the ball when going forward – in Group H the Desert Warriors spend the lowest average number of minutes (17.9) building attacks and have the highest instances of lost possession when building attacks.
Belgium are being labeled ‘dark horses’ for this World Cup, and an impressive squad drawn from many of Europe’s top teams would appear to vindicate this faith. They will hope for a return to the glory days of the gifted Enzo Scifo, the playmaker who helped them reach the semi-finals at Mexico ’86.
While they are strong all over the field, Belgium’s creative department will rely heavily on Chelsea star Eden Hazard to weave his magic around opposition areas, but he has not been in top form with club or country recently, even being labeled “lazy” by former Belgian international Marc Degryse.
However, the data seems to suggest that assertion could be a little harsh. Of any player appearing in over ten qualifying games, Hazard recorded a group-high average of 5.9 passes per game in dangerous situations. When Belgium build attacks, he has the highest percentage of passes that create danger in the final third.
Russia lit up Euro 2008 with an adventurous style of football that earned them a semi-final spot. Since then have enjoyed little success, but a squad of players drawn entirely from home clubs does have a chance of progressing.
Viktor Fayzulin, the Zenit St Petersburg midfielder, will be worth watching out for. He is Group H’s top pass deliverer (48.8) and receiver (53.6), and has the highest average of actions per game when building attacks as well as an average of 5.6 instances per game of creating opportunities in the final third.
Euro 2008 star Andrei Arshavin was left out of the Russia squad, and the data questions if Capello’s decision was a wise one. In the games the former Arsenal midfielder has played over the past 2 years he averages a squad-high number of crosses in dangerous situations (4.2) with a squad-high average of 1.4 per game creating a scoring opportunity and more of his dribbles result in danger in the final third (7.7) per game than any Russia player over qualifying.
Over their nine World Cup campaigns, South Korea have earned a reputation as a tough, quick passing side capable of springing a surprise. One contest the pundits are already looking forward to is Sung-Yeung Ki vs Hazard, as the Swansea City midfielder is being tipped to keep Belgium’s tricky forward in check. But aside from his defensive duties, Kim makes his fair share of contributions when South Korea build attacks, spending the most time in possession of the ball of any player in the group.
The Red Devils might have to improve in front of goal if they are to progress. Their main goal threat looks to be Keun-Ho Lee, who continued his respectable goal scoring record this season with 15 playing for the country’s army side. But South Korea are the only Group H team whose strikers all have a chance-to-goal conversion rate of below 10%.
Group H is one of several at Brazil 2014 without a clear favourite, leaving the door open for one of the less glamorous sides to do their country proud.